"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs -- including guides, the latest trends, rapid bar reviews and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
As OnMilwaukee.com's Bar Month comes to a close this week, we're all reflecting on the ever-fun, interesting and profitable industry that has helped Milwaukee thrive for years. At tonight's second annual Bartender Olympics, we pay tribute to a sampling of the city's bartenders -- those faithful drink slingers who fill our glasses week after week.
An attentive and skilled staff of bartenders can turn good bar into a great one, but there are other factors in play here, too. While the barkeeps are busy getting all the attention and raking in the tips, we realized there is a whole cast of players doing their share to ensure the local tavern remains a fun place to socialize and relax.
Local bar and club DJ Erika Bock, who provides her drinking soundtracks under the name Erika Jean, sums it up well.
"Bartenders can make or break a night, sure, and they work their asses off, but the way service industry works is that everyone works symbiotically. You can't have any element really be out of sync or it doesn't fly. Your barbacks, your door people, your talent, your bartenders -- they all have to be on. People can go anywhere to just have a drink, you know? You have to present an experience."
We raise our glasses to the un-sung heroes of the bar industry. Here are the stories of a few of them.
At this point in the game, Bock herself is a pretty common name within Milwaukee's evolving DJ community. An audiophile from youth, the now 29-year-old Bock began booking and promoting concerts locally in 1993 and started DJing publicly five years ago. You may remember her from her famed Britpop nights, Boarding School, at the former Room 434 and then at The Highbury Pub. Or maybe you were privy to her dance party skills at RATIO, an all-female DJ night she created at Moct.
These days, she's back in school full time and but still DJs on the regular at Redroom and Cafe Centraal.
"I spent a good chunk of my 20s doing booking, promotion and DJing and you burn out on it. The schedule can be brutal -- there were days I wouldn't get to bed 'til 5 a.m. after a show ... and then you sleep until the afternoon, or it's dark when you wake up, and you think, 'Man, I've wasted daylight!' I never saw people unless they came to my events. I didn't sleep enough. I didn't go to the gym enough. I didn't eat well. I probably drank too much. But I definitely don't regret the experience! Now that I'm heading into my 30s it's time to step aside and let some of the younger crew in."
Still, she loves Milwaukee's DJ veterans -- "I'm a sucker for Kid Cut Up and those No Request guys and I will always get excited for Kenny Perez 'cause he and I go way back," she says. And when she takes to the tables herself these days, herplaylists are as unpredictable as the night. Maybe it'll be electro or house, maybe shoegaze, but it's always perfectly matched to the venue.
"I've given up being too much of a music snob, I think you miss out on the fun of it if you're constantly worried about whether or not playing a certain track will cause people to perceive you as lame. I like what I like, and I play what I like while trying to keep a crowd happy, too."
Milwaukee's Brandon Malacara has booked and promoted shows for the last seven years, though it hasn't always been for a bar. "I've promoted or produced shows in apartments, campuses, auditoriums, coffee shops, art galleries, restaurants (and) parks," he says.
"The first show I threw basically involved me asking a bunch of my friends' bands to play my apartment. Four hundred people showed up and then I got evicted. So now I try to keep shows in the appropriate venues."
These days, he's started his own promotion company called Battle Cry (with the Irish Pub's Keegan Pavlik), which brought Milwaukee its first Cream City Music Festival last summer as well as numerous quality national acts -- Sea Wolf, The Mighty Diamonds and the Electric Six -- at The Mad Planet.
Booking music for a bar has its own value, he says -- one that is both challenging and rewarding. "You have competing forces that inherently exist. People go to a bar to have a good time. Sometimes the music isn't the primary source of that ‘good time.' There's more alcohol, smoke, background noise, rowdiness and all-around distractions, but the upside is the potential for random and unique moments exist and there can also be a lot more energy."
Malacara is a busy guy. He's kept his day job while refining his role in keeping Milwaukee's live music scene strong, diverse and fresh by night. This, by nature, means spending a lot of time at the bar.
"I probably spend more time in a bar than I should or would like to, but the bar has always had this odd allure of being holy ground to me -- the communal meeting place for humans to have some shared experience. Music has always facilitated that same notion. It provides a medium or vehicle for bringing together a group of people to focus their collective energy in a generally positive manner. Going to a bar and listening to music is the same thing our species has been doing for a very long time in one manner or another."
Ryan Wickens isn't just any ordinary bar trivia host; he's the Quizmater, and for good reason. When the British-born trivia junkie moved to Milwaukee at age 18 to attend Cardinal Stritch University, he started tending bar at (where else?) the former BritInn. It was there that he launched his live-host bar trivia service, British Pub Quiz. Fans flocked and today, his team of four hosts pub quizzes in 15 bars in the Milwaukee area for or five nights a week.
It's his full-time job and it involves a lot more than asking random questions of drunk people. He's involved in every aspect of the business, from accounting to maintaining the Web site to personally writing each week's questions so as to query about the most current topics affecting Milwaukee, the U.S. and the world.
He takes it seriously, but also knows his way around a good time. His motto, after all, is "drink while you think."
"It's something unique and different to do on a night when you have nothing else to do," he says. "Some take it quite seriously, but at the end of the day, it's meant to be an escape from everyday life and have a drink. Learn something new while sitting in a bar."
People love it -- and his British accent.
The dean of beer school
Traditionally, wine has been the ultimate culinary complement, a long-standing trend that summonsed sommeliers to explain the various complex natures of fermented grapes. Now, with craft beer connoisseurship on the rise, beer drinkers are significantly more interested in gaining an education about what they consume.
This is where Drew Malley comes in, at least in Milwaukee. As the dean of Comet Cafe's beer school, Malley teams up with Adam Lucks, Comet's executive chef and co-owner, to help educate the buzzed masses on brew. Mallet calls class to session on the first Tuesday of every month and 45 students pay $20 for a 101 on a variety of unique beers.
Malley has been around beer for a long time -- he began as a beer buyer for Whole Foods before he was even 21. For each class, Malley chooses a theme and his pupils learn all about Belgian beers or imperial stouts or IPAs, for example, while heartily imbibing at the bar.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”